Helena Bonham Carter has already received numerous award nominations for her portrayal of the young Queen Mother in The King’s Speech, so you’d presume it was a role she’d been relentlessly chasing.
Not so says Bonham Carter, sitting resplendent in a black gothic Victorian ensemble at a small table strewn with cups of tea.
She boasts porcelain skin that makes her look a decade younger than her 44 years and speaks in a quiet, well-spoken voice that she prefers to describe as “mumbly”.
As it turns out, it was the film’s director, Tom Hooper, who did all the running.
“I didn’t mean to do it. I have children and was doing something in the week (that something being Harry Potter, in which she stars as Bellatrix). It meant doing everything back-to-back so I just said, ‘No Tom’.”
It didn’t help Hooper’s cause that the role didn’t jump out at Bonham Carter.
“The Queen Mum? It’s like the ultimate supporting wife,” she says.
“[I thought] it could be really wet and boring and I just didn’t get it, and Tom said, ‘Well, neither do I really, it needs definition but come and do it’.”
And just to “shut him up” Bonham Carter agreed.
“He was extraordinary. I call him Thomas The Tank Engine because when he has an idea, he will be relentless.”
She had only two weeks to prepare but set about tackling a wordy William Shawcross biography.
“Part of the pain of playing the Queen Mum is that she lived for so long. There was a hell of a lot in the book to get through. I was trying to speed read it, dressed as Bellatrix in my trailer, thinking ‘Quick, quick, get to the essence’.”
To speed things up, she also got in touch with the royal expert Hugo Vickers.
“I said, ‘Give us the dirt. I’ve got to get to the heart quickly’ and he came up with a really useful phrase that Cecil Beaton said — that she was ‘a marshmallow made with a welding machine’ and I thought that duality would be interesting to play.”
The result is a perfectly pitched performance denoting an exterior sweetness combined with the real wit and sharpness of a woman who knows her own mind.
As for the film, it may not sound the most exciting premise for a plot — reluctant king (Colin Firth) learns how to overcome a stammer thanks to a maverick speech therapist (Geoffrey Rush) — but on the big screen it’s a poignant story that will have you laughing one minute and close to tears the next.
“It’s not really about someone who’s forced to be king without being equipped, but about someone who’s terrified — and everyone relates to fear,” says Bonham Carter.
“It’s also a story of male friendship and how a human being can fundamentally help and pull another out of a deep hole.”
Although she’d never worked with Firth before, there was an easy affinity between them: “I felt at home very quickly being his supportive wife,” she says.
Both are up for Golden Globes, two of the seven the film’s been nominated for, which is some indication of how Oscar nominations might pan out too.
“It’s a small independent film, so at least these award things bring people’s attention to a film that might otherwise die in a very overcrowded marketplace,” is Bonham Carter’s take on the upcoming awards season.
Asked whether they sensed there was something special happening during the shoot, Bonham Carter shakes her head.
“No, you never know,” she says. “You know it stands a chance because the writing is so good, but without it being executed well, it doesn’t matter. Tom really knew what he was doing. He was very demanding, very rigorous. And Colin and Geoffrey too. They were really hard taskmasters and everyone questioned every single line of dialogue. There wasn’t one stone left unturned.”
Following a series of family dramas, including her father’s stroke which left him wheelchair bound, Bonham Carter chose to apply herself to acting and at 13 years of age signed herself with an agent, despite having no training.
“When you’re young, you can be brave. You don’t realise how far you can fall and there’s a certain belief and confidence, which I had quite early on,” she says.
“If you think you can do it, you can fool other people into thinking you can do it. Never mind if you can’t, it’s like make believe, magic, an illusion.”
In a few short years she’d starred in a number of successful period dramas, A Room With A View, Lady Jane and Howards End, and was hailed “the corset queen”, she says with a sigh.
Then in 1998 she was nominated for an Oscar for The Wings Of The Dove and the chance to prove her diversity showed itself.
“There’s a crazy window in between when you get nominated and the Oscars ceremony, when you get offered everything under the sun, however unsuitable,” she says.
One such offer was Fight Club — and it was Brad Pitt who suggested she play the dissolute Marla Singer.
“I guess Fight Club was the most unsuitable part and I thought, ‘Good on you Brad’ and decided to go for it.
“I loved the humour and I loved the part. I like anyone who’s dysfunctional. I’m always attracted to people who are sick or mentally different.”
It’s a fascination she shares with her mother who trained to be a psychotherapist after undergoing therapy for her depression.
“We interpret it in different ways. Mum tries to get people through it and I act it out, but we both think, ‘How on earth did that person end up like that?”‘
Two years later she signed on to what would prove another life- changing role, only this time on a personal level. The film was Planet Of The Apes, and though the film bombed, she can credit it as the project where she met her partner, director Tim Burton (below left), 52. They now have two children, Billy, (7) and Nell, (3).
They’ve since worked on six films together, including Alice In Wonderland and Charlie And The Chocolate Factory.
Considered equally quirky in both their look and lifestyle, people are fascinated by the pair.
In the past she’s said their living arrangement is “nothing more interesting than two houses knocked together”.
Today she admits it’s a treasure trove of the weird and wonderful, including an oversized chair from Charlie And The Chocolate Factory set, a baby door and even a gypsy caravan.
“It’s definitely been designed with some imagination,” she says.
And then there’s the parenting class she’s been doing to fall back on.
“It basically teaches you how to become a calmer, happier, easier parent,” she explains. “And it’s really useful, because no one teaches you how to do the hardest job in the world.”